Syd C. Heal – Nautical Historian, Interpreter and Book Publisher

by John M. MacFarlane 2014

S.C. Heal

Syd C. Heal (Photo from the S.C. Heal collection.)

I first became aware of Syd Heal from the books that he produced from his publishing house, Cordillera Books in Vancouver BC. His in depth knowledge of ships and shipping seemed limitless and his talent for interpreting processes and equipment was really impressive. It is very difficult to generate a living based on heritage – but Heal turned a passion for story telling into a thriving business.

Syd Heal’s interest in the sea is almost part of his DNA. He was born in 1925 at Hoylake and grew up in the neighbouring town of West Kirby on the Wirral Peninsula across the Mersey from Liverpool. His great–grandfather (Captain John Callow Heal, 1831–1903) had among a variety of sailing ships, been master of the Parthenope, sister ship of the CPR Vancouver coal hulk Melanope, both famous fast clippers to Australia in their day. An uncle was a master in the Ellerman Line. His father served in the Merchant Marine in troopships in the Second World War until his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. As a boy he explored the many Merseyside docks and shipyards where he came into contact with ships and seamen which began his passion for capturing ship images on film.

In 1942, at 16½, he left school and joined the Thames & Mersey Marine Insurance Company and the following year he volunteered for the Royal Navy, serving as an ordinary seaman. He soon qualified as a midshipman RNVR and after training in landing craft he was transferred to the RN Commandos as a Sub-lieutenant, engaged in amphibious operations in S.E. Asia. The day Japan surrendered was the day when there was no further work for his unit and he transferred back into LCTs – Landing Craft Tanks – at Singapore. For the next 18 months he was involved with landing craft around the South China Sea, In Malaysia, Borneo, the Philippines and Hong Kong and his final appointment came when he took command of HM LCI–11. He says that there was a lot of surplus black and white 35mm, reconnaissance film to be had, if you knew where to find it. A lot of his came off an aircraft carrier that was returning to the U.K. for lay up, but with this he was able to add a lot of photos to his ship collection.

Demobilized in the U.K. in 1947 with the rank of Lieutenant RNR, he invested his prize money and demobilization gratuity in a chemical firelighter business and did many things to "make a quid". He pulled down old chicken sheds and rebuilt them as back garden sheds, small garages and even a greenhouse, but times were tough in postwar Britain and for entrepreneurs like him it was very discouraging. At this point he joined the Maritime Insurance Company and by 1951 he had earned professional qualification as an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute.

In 1952 he emigrated to Vancouver where he joined Parsons, Brown Ltd as marine manager for several marine insurance companies for which Parsons, Brown acted as Canadian agents. In 1957 he joined Vancouver Holdings and eventually bought the business when the owner passed away. In 1962 he made the first critical moves in saving the steam tug Master as a preservation project, by acquiring it before it went for scrap.

In 1963, he sold his interest in Vancouver Holdings and with the late Captain Ed Wray started Georgia Shipping, a tug and barge transportation company which prospered into a nine vessel fleet. After a severe downturn in the business he was persuaded that it was time to try something else and he left the business. He returned to marine insurance with John & Higgins, a large American insurance brokerage, before joining the Bell–Irving Group, owners (among other interests) of the Anglo–British Columbia Packing Company.

As a sideline he still owned a barge and then he acquired a new water taxi, the Mayne Express which he leased to Phillips Marine Transport Ltd. run by his partner, an ex–R.N. submarine commander, Nigel Phillips.

After this he went into the real estate business specializing in coastal properties for the next 17 years. This lead to the aquaculture industry where he played a prominent role in the Sunshine Coast Aquaculture Association based in Sechelt all along retaining his position as a realtor handling fish farm assets. As a sideline he and his then stepson, Dave MacKenzie, started Seaforth Aquacualture which they developed as an oyster farming business. After selling this as a going concern to a Norwegian fish farming company, Heal braced himself for retirement at 65 in 1990.

Having been in business continuously since 1942, excepting his four years of service in the Navy, he then set up Cordillera Books in 1991 as maritime book publishers and as a post retirement project. This business published about 60 books of which 24 were written by him. During the past 30 years he has been a contributing writer for five marine and four fish farming journals. Now as he approaches his nineties the business just ticks over and he writes only for the B.C. Shipping News, as he says, "To keep my hand in."

His favourite book of all the ones he has written is A Great Fleet of Ships: The Canadian Forts & Parks, published in 1999, the most complete accounting of the wartime Liberty type freighters built in Canada as part of the Emergency Shipbuilding Program. He makes no claim that book publishing and writing has been the most profitable business he ever engaged in, but in his own words, "It has been great brain food that has kept my intellectual juices running and assisted me into graceful old age with lots of steam left in the boiler."

In my opinion there is no finer interpreter of the marine scene in British Columbia. He leads the pack in his general commercial knowledge, not only historically but also in a far broader field from marine insurance and finance through to practical ship economics and operations!

S.C. Heal is the author of:

  • - Boomsticks & Towlines (West Coast Maritime Series #1) (2002)
  • - Always Ready (West Coast Maritime Series #2) (2002)
  • - Tying the Knot: Consolidations and Mergers (Westcoast Maritime Series #3) (2003)
  • - A Great Fleet of Ships: The Canadian Forts and Parks (1999)
  • - Across Far Distant Horizons: The life and times of a Canadian Master Mariner (1995)
  • - Full Line, Full Away: A Towboat Master’s Story (2nd ed.) (with Captain J.E.Wilson)
  • - Showing The Flag: The West Coast Tug and Barge Industry: Offshore and Overseas Operations (WCMS#4)
  • - The Log Ships: The Story of the World’s Only Two Self–Loading, Self–Propelled, Self–Dumping Bulk Log Carrier Ships
  • - The Log Barges: The Story of a Unique British Columbia Maritime Innovation
  • - The Loose Cannon: From Deckhand to Captain to the Executive Suite
  • - Deep Sea Shipping Conceived In War, Born In Peace: Canada’s Deep Sea Merchant Marine
  • - Across Far Distant Horizons: The Life & Times of a Canadian Master Mariner
  • - A Great Fleet of Ships: The Canadian Forts & Parks
  • - Ugly Ducklings: Japan’s WWII Liberty Type Standard Freighters
  • - Inbound To Vancouver: BC’s Offshore Trade and Ocean Shipping 1850–1945 (WCMS#5)
  • - Outbound From Vancouver: BC’s Offshore Trade and Ocean Shipping: 1945 to Present Era (WCMS#6)
  • - Canadian Capers: A Seaman’s Account of Voyages And Intrigues Through the Corporate Jungle (with Svein Stokke) )
  • - The Maple Leaf Afloat (Vol.1): West Coast Maritime Memories
  • - The Maple Leaf Afloat (Vol.2): More Maritime Memories
  • - A South Asian Odyssey: Voyages and Travels in the Last Days of the British Raj
  • - The Romance of Historic Names: In Vancouver Harbour, Howe Sound and Jervis Inlet
  • - Ferries West: A West Coast Photo Album (WCMS#7)
  • - Stand By, Let ’Er Go: The Gillnetter Years: The Memoirs of a Commercial Fisherman (with Robert Karliner)

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2014) Syd C. Heal – Nautical Historian, Interpreter and Publisher. 2014.

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